Learn what it means to be "savage," according to director Tayarisha Poe.

By Omar Sanchez
April 17, 2020 at 03:07 PM EDT
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When Selah and the Spades director Tayarisha Poe was a teenager, just a kid from New Jersey in boarding school years away from making waves at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, reality hit her like an edible on an empty stomach. Poe aspired to be an individual. She wanted to feel like she had power in her future. But society wasn't about to let her take hold that easy.

"As a young black girl who would one day be a young black woman, I understood that the world was never going to be fully satisfied with me," she tells EW.

Amazon Studios

On Thursday, hours earlier than expected, Poe reclaimed that power by releasing her debut feature via Amazon Prime, about a queen bee ruling over her high school's drug trade like a Goodfellas kingpin. It was a move you may call "savage." Poe would call it: Savage by Fenty

"We came up with a visual style called savage. Like with the song [Rihanna] has on Anti where she says 'Didn't they tell you that I was savage?'" Poe says. "Just this impossibly cool, disaffected yet beautiful, unapproachable, but also really relatable."

HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images

Selah and the Spades is a high school drama with a hypnotic backbone that also pervades Rihanna's last album Anti. Our story centers around Selah (Lovie Simone), who runs a faction in an elite Philadelphia boarding school that provides the drugs for the entire school. The other factions are as follows: the C's, the teacher's pets. The Skins, "dealing with anything you can gamble on." The Bobby's, "responsible for every illegal party that’s ever been hosted in a dorm basement after lights out." The Prefects, led by student body president, Two Thomas. What are the Spades known for? "They’ll push you past the limit so you know where the limit is," the movie's intro voiceover tells us.

The movie has a distinct voice, a cry for help for helpless Gen-Zers tired of being the next in line without any power to show for it. The movie is smattered with deep focus cinematography, led by the director of photography Jomo Fray. Characters aren't afraid to break the fourth wall if it means it's time to put you in your place (a decision influenced by the works of legendary filmmaker Spike Lee, Poe says).

The Spades crew includes the pompous yet naive Maxxie (Jherrel Jarome) and soon, photographer Paloma (Celeste O' Connor), who is taken under the wing by Selah as the next in line after graduation.

In Selah, Simone creates a thrilling new kind of antihero. The actress reflects particularly on a moment on set back in the summer of 2017. She was developing the character with Poe, discussing how to make the insidious side of Selah come alive. "She was like, Selah is the girl that roots for the villain in the movie. She understands them. It's all about your shadow self. A lot of people are afraid to show the parts of themselves that they are afraid will be too powerful or too much for the world to take in."

Amazon Studios

This side of you is something you should accept rather than banish, Poe says. Poe sees herself in each of the three main characters, for the ways they try to reclaim their power in a world that refuses to give it to them. In a scene where Selah's mother (played by Gina Torres) is interrogating her for what she plans in her future, Selah is hit with the parable of the scorpion and the frog. "If you leave the movie with the understanding that Selah is the scorpion, then so what?" Poe poses to EW. "For Selah in that moment, it is an extremely effective lesson. Because from that point on in my mind she's thinking 'am I the scorpion?' But, like, scorpions need love to!"

Poe laughs and adds, "I feel like Drake would really agree with that." Savage, indeed.

Selah and the Spades is now streaming on Amazon Prime.

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